This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Sept. 2014 before the launch of this weblog.
The old Citizens Telephone Company
By Jared Olar
Just over the past few decades, the telecommunications industry has seen great changes both in technology and in options available to consumers — and over the past century or so, those changes have been vast.
Soon after the turn of the last century, consumer options in Pekin were limited to just two telephone companies: the Central Union Telephone Company, and the Citizens Telephone Company. A four-paragraph account of Citizens Telephone was included in the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume, on page 80. The first two paragraphs of that account are as follows:
“The year 1901 found Pekin with two competing telephone companies: Central Union Telephone Company, first on the scene, and the newly organized Citizens Telephone Company, headed by James W. Barrett. The Citizens Company also established an exchange at East Peoria, adding to their already existing stations at Havana, Manito, Green Valley, Delavan, and Lacon, connected by a system of company-owned toll lines.
“The continuous growth of the community necessitated expansion of service, which meant much additional capital. Following the first World War, the telephone situation was discouraging for the citizens of Pekin, as there were two sets of telephone lines in town, yet many people seeking service could not get it until much of the outmoded equipment was replaced and the necessary expansion completed.”
During those years, Citizens Telephone operated out of a building at 405 Court St. in downtown Pekin -— the same building where the Pekin Daily Times offices were then located, and which suffered a wall collapse over four years ago. The 1887 Pekin City Directory lists the Times Publishing Co., “publishers of the Daily and Weekly Times,” at 507 Court St., but the 1893 directory shows that the Times had moved to 405 Court St. by that year.
However, the 1903-1904 Pekin City Directory, page 183, shows the following occupants of 405 Court St.: Times Publishing Co.; Citizens Telephone Co., 2nd floor; and J. K. Hawkins. The Times moved out of the building around 1905, and the former Times offices became the offices of the Tribune Printing Co., a Pekin newspaper that was also owned by the Times Publishing Co.
Citizens Telephone continued to occupy the second floor of 405 Court St., though, and the city directories around that time usually listed “405½ Court St.” as the phone company’s address. For a while, as shown in the 1913 and 1914 directories, Citizens Telephone shared the building with Idylhour Theatre, located on the ground floor, but eventually the phone company became the lone occupant of the building.
The Sesquicentennial’s account of Citizens Telephone goes on to say that, “The Citizens Company was sold to W.S. Green and associates, who had formed a new company (still called Citizens Company). They promptly traded East Peoria and Delavan service rights to Central Union (later absorbed by the Bell System) for the ‘long distance phone system’ in Pekin and brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars of new capital to replace the mass of bare wires in town with one of the most extensive underground cable systems to be found in a similar-sized community anywhere.
“The depression years of the early thirties proved a serious blow to the company, however, and so in January of 1938 the Citizens Company was taken over by the Middle States Telephone Company of Illinois, which was a division of the Central Telephone Company (no kin to Central Union) headquartered in Des Plaines, Illinois. The firm retained the name of Middle States, however, for nearly 30 years, officially changing to Central Telephone in 1967.”
Thanks to the old Pekin city directories, we are able to correct one important detail of this account. It was not in 1938 that Citizens Telephone was taken over by Middle States. Rather, the takeover must have happened about 10 years earlier, because the city directories list Citizens Telephone at 405 Court St. up until 1928 — the city directory of that year for the first time shows “Middle States Telephone” at that address, and so it would continue for the next 39 years.